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10.9.03

The benefits of repatriation

No Bones About It

... Returning [human] remains is presented as a way of making amends for the past sufferings of indigenous communities. Manchester Museum director Tristram Besterman said: 'By returning these remains now we hope to contribute to ending the sense of outrage and dispossession felt by Australian Aborigines today.' Receiving the bones, an Aboriginal representative said: 'The torment is ended, we now put an end to the torment.'

But in fact, repatriation masks the real and present remnants of colonialism in countries like America and Australia. Indigenous communities do face huge problems of poverty and marginalisation, which can only be rectified with practical measures like increased investment and improved services. Yet these problems are laid at the door of The Bones. Aboriginal rights campaigner Rodney Dillon told a Museums Association annual conference that 'People [in aboriginal communities] are walking around with their heads down because ancestors are not where they are supposed to be'.

Rather than improved rights and living conditions, Native communities are being offered spiritual communion with the bones of their relatives. This can't be a fair exchange.

-- via Butterflies and Wheels


This article starts off with all the usual stuff about all the vitally important information that society will lose if remains are repatriated. Apparently the author knows more about science than the majority of people who work in the area, since she reports that museum curators are distressingly friendly to repatriation. She worries that museums' role as collectors is threatened by repatriation, as if museums have nothing else in their collections except unjustly acquired skeletons. But it's the end of the article -- quoted above -- that I find most interesting.

First, the article underestimates the importance of dignity to people. Those of us in relatively affluent situations tend to overemphasize the importance of basic biological survival needs, and assume that those needs must be met fairly fully before moving on to psychological and social needs. But I'm frequently impressed by the degree of importance that down-and-out people place on dignity and self-respect, sacrificing it only when life itself is at stake. A combination of traditional views as to the importance of the ancestors, and more recent cultural emphases on control of remains as symbolic of native relations with non-natives, has made the remains of their ancestors central to many native people's dignity.

The argument also sets up a false trade-off -- either repatriate bones or give economic and political aid. Just stating it that way should be enough to show the problem. Yes, economic aid is vitally important, in my view more so than repatriation. But it's hard to see how refraining from repatriation would help with economic aid. It's not like the resources used up in repatriation could be so well spent in economic aid, unless we're going to sell remains on the black market and give the proceeds to native communities (which the natives could do themselves). Indeed, one of the main costs of repatriation is taking the inventory of museum holdings to determine what needs to be repatriated -- information that the museum really ought to have regardless of repatriation, and whose absence suggests that claims about the remains' scientific importance are overblown.

I would venture to say that repatriation makes economic aid more effective. The behavior of non-native scientists has been an important element in creating a strong distrust among natives for non-natives and their programs. Repatriation is an easy way to demonstrate good faith and a concern with native values, opinions, and interests. This in turn will make natives more receptive to and cooperative with the kinds of programs that work best for a non-native community helping a native one (that is, programs that engage with the people rather than just throwing money at them). In addition, the social and communication links that repatriation forges can be instrumental in helping get non-native society interested in and informed about the conditions in native communities, which in turn is key to creating the impetus for more substantive aid projects.

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